Gossip and Leadership

When I worked in France, management handed down an edict in the form of a formal letter and a rider to our contracts. It stated that we were not to talk about anything other than work during working hours.

Furthermore, anyone caught gossiping would be subject to disciplinary action.


Of course, this being France, there were laws, and there were laws that people broke. And this fell into the latter camp, as did most laws.

And yet today, I see that the BBC are asking its staff not to gossip about HE who shall not be named (see what I did there?). The world has changed since those heady days of the gossip-free French company I worked at. We have social media, the ultimate conduit of salacious gossip. 

But more importantly, we still have the water cooler. We still have those moments of staff gathering for a quick chat. And while nobody condones my French employer's efforts to stop us talking about non-work topics, we do need gossip policies.

And if you think this is the proverbial treading on eggshells, you're not wrong. But it still has to be tackled.

Think perhaps about those BBC employees during the week or so before Huw Edwards was named. Imagine the office gossip. Is it this presenter or that presenter? What do you think he's done now? And so on, and so on.

The effect that gossip can have on staff can be severely detrimental, especially if it's spreading rumours about other members of staff. Imagine the effect it can have on the person involved - and imagine how distracting it can become as rumours spread.

Imagine, as another scenario, that you hire someone who is absolutely brilliant at their job, keeps themselves to themselves and is bringing in serious revenue to your business. But then someone starts a political conversation and it turns out that he or she is a Trump fan.

The words Pandora and Box spring rapidly to mind.

Good leaders know that parameters have to be set. You can have diversity of thought within your business and you can have personal issues at play at all times - people will talk at work, and gossip will happen. 

To develop a gossip policy, you have to clearly define parameters. What is acceptable and what is not? What is off limits?

For instance, there are a number of things that are very clearly off-limits. Salary, for one - is an absolute no-no. While there may be a trend towards salary openness, it's not something that you want discussed in the office! The same goes for bonuses. 

And if those guidelines are disrespected, then what are the consequences? 

So a gossip policy IS a good idea, and - with hindsight - I can kind of understand why my French employer wanted to put a lid on office gossip. However, they fell on the wrong side of the line in terms of its application. 

You can't stop people talking. You can't stop spontaneous conversations, and indeed you should encourage people to develop relationships at work.

But you can - and should - control the conversation that's taking place on your watch. And you can - and should - specify what's acceptable, because doing so protects people. 

It protects them from discrimination, it protects them from salacious gossip, and it potentially protects them from revealing too much about their own views, which may result in discrimination against them. 

Published on Jul 19, 2023 by Gareth Cartman